Living in the Zone
Pele, the great soccer player whose spectacular performance almost single-handedly inspired American awareness and appreciation of his sport, wrote of his experience of the Zone in his autobiography, My Life and Beautiful Game. "In the middle of a match, I felt a strange calmness I hadn't experienced before. It was a type of euphoria. I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any or all of their team, that I could almost pass through them physically. It was a strange feeling and one that I had not had before. Perhaps it was merely confidence, but I have felt confident many times without that strange feeling of invincibility."
Baseball players are famous for their exotic pregame rituals in hopes of entering the Zone, in hopes of seeing baseballs as big as watermelons floating to the plate. Superstitions such as wearing dirty socks or garter belts for weeks on end are not unusual. Former Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs was famous for his pregame chicken dinners. Almost all professional athletes, in their own ways, search for the effortless performance of the Zone.
It has been called many things. Researchers speak of it as "peak experience" or the "flow state"; they say it is an "altered state" of human consciousness that cannot be intentionally created. Athletes find it difficult to describe when they return from it, although they may attribute it to supernatural concentration, religious mysticism, Zen, visualization, or biorhythms. More commonly, athletes refer to the Zone as the "exercise high," the "runner's high," the "groove," being "unconscious," or being "locked in."
Byron Scott, of the Los Angeles Lakers, said that when he finds himself in the Zone, "All you can hear is this little voice inside you, telling you 'Shoot' every time you touch the ball, because you know it's going in. Nobody outside can penetrate this world and the person guarding you wishes he wasn't. . . . I could shoot blindfolded from half court over my head and it would go in."
Joseph Campbell, considered the world's foremost authority on mythology, was interviewed for a PBS series shortly before his death in 1987, when he was in his eighties. During the interview, Bill Moyers asked him, "How do you explain what the psychologist Maslow called 'peak experiences'?" After a pause, Campbell replied, "My own peak experiences, the ones I knew were peak experiences after I had them, all came in athletics."
The field of sports psychology, which was developed in part to help athletes reproduce the highly coveted experience of the Zone, has failed in its attempts. Dr. Keith Henschen of the University of Utah, who specializes in the field, recognizes the elusive nature and apparently unreproducible experience of the Zone, but at the same time he believes it can be randomly accessed by anyone. That is, it can come to anyone, but it comes when it comes, not necessarily when you want it to. Perhaps the most certain limiting factor, according to Henschen, is that "the harder you try to get there, the less likely it is that you will."
This generates an interesting paradox. Modern exercise theory revolves around one central pivot, the stress-and-recover cycle, which boils down to this: We must repeatedly push ourselves to our limits and then let the body recover; that is how we become stronger, faster, and so on. The Zone is defined antithetically: The harder you try to reach that state, the less likely it is that you will. Conventional training demands that we put out tremendous effort; the Zone is an experience of absolute effortlessness.
Before 1954, the 4-minute mile was considered beyond human capability. Then Roger Bannister, an English medical student, cracked the barrier, running a mile in 3:59:4. Bannister said, "We seemed to be going so slowly. . . . I was relaxing so much that my mind seemed almost detached from my body. There was no strain. There was no pain. Only a great unity of movement and aim. The world seemed to stand still or even not exist."
Bannister's experience was not "No pain, no gain," but rather, "No strain, no pain = historic world record." Although Bannister told the world his formula for success, during the nearly fifty years since his achievement, athletes have continued to train using the stress-and-recover method.
If we want to reproduce the Zone, doesn't it make more sense that we should reproduce its qualities? If the experience is effortless, then we should cultivate effortlessness, rather than push the body to its limits. It seems naïve and foolish to expect the light, comfortable, euphoric feeling of the Zone to come with any regularity after the mind has driven the body into exhaustion.
This is one of the strategies you will learn in this book: capture the ease of the Zone from the first step of each workout, and gracefully build on that experience without dis-integrating the mind from the body.
Do Less and Accomplish More
Warren Wechsler had never considered himself an athlete. He had spent most of his adult life developing his mind, while paying little attention to his body. A successful businessman at 33, Warren suddenly found himself with a burning desire to run and set himself the goal of running a marathon by age 40.
He had a long way to go. He was overweight, stressed from his job, and completely out of shape. But he bought a pair of top-quality running shoes and started jogging. Very quickly he realized that he felt happier and healthier than before and that he had a natural talent for the sport.
After four months of pounding the pavement, Warren developed Achilles tendonitis. To alleviate it, he stretched more, went for physical therapy, and took more rest days, but the tightness on long runs persisted. He decided to "run through it"--a common technique among die-hard runners--hoping that the pain would disappear. After four more months Warren's ankle pain worsened. It soon developed into calf pain as well, then worked its way up to the knee. Undaunted, Warren continued his workouts, convinced that "all good things have their price." The aches and pains soon appeared in the other knee. When they reached his back, he was forced to hang up his running shoes.
Three years later, in 1989, Warren attended my Body, Mind, and Sport seminar. He wanted to get back to running, but, afraid of reinjury, he didn't let himself get his hopes up too high. On hearing the principle that "less is more," and that running, if done properly, should remove strain rather than produce it, Warren decided to give it another go. He began exercising again, cautiously this time, following the specific advice for his body type and listening carefully to the needs of his body. (Body types are fully explained in chapter 4.)
Warren was so conditioned to expect strain and pain that he found it strange not to hurt during his workouts. At first he noticed that his heart rate would jump from 75 BPM (beats per minute) to 170 or 180 as soon as he started exercising with even moderate exertion. After three months of reconditioning his body to do less and accomplish more on his exercise bike, he found that he could pedal for over an hour with his heart rate around 120 and his breath rate even and comfortable at around 15 breaths per minute.
In January 1990, Warren felt ready to run and rejoined his health club, which featured an indoor track. At first, finding himself lapped by his old running partners, he had to struggle against his desire to keep up with them. Listening carefully to his body--not to the ambitions of his mind or to his sense of pride--he let them pass him. Gradually he picked up speed. Soon he surpassed his former running partners, only this time he did so without injury or pain.
He called me at my office eighteen months after starting the Invincible Athletics program and gave me this report:
John, I'm 38 years old. I've never been an athlete in my life. I took your course to give my running one last try. Since then, I've lost 30 pounds and 6 inches of girth without trying or dieting. I don't get sick or anxious anymore, and I've got more vitality than I've ever known.
Yesterday, running on my indoor track, I ran 17 miles. I felt absolutely fantastic the whole way. I felt as good when I stopped as I did when I started. The amazing thing was that I ran a 6-minute-mile pace for the entire 17 miles. It was unbelievable. I was in the Zone. I felt like I was running on air. It was the easiest thing I've ever done.
The most incredible thing was that my heart rate averaged about 120 BPM during the entire run. Sometimes it went even lower, but it never went over 130 BPM while I maintained the 6-minute pace. When I counted my breath rate, it was between 12 and 15 breaths per minute. [The average breath rate at rest is 18 breaths per minute.] At this rate, when I'm 40 I could be running marathons with the best runners in the world, having the runner's high experience the entire time.
For Warren, exercise had become a means of removing stress. The more he ran, the more rejuvenated he felt.
We had been working with many athletes at our health center and finding some dramatic decreases in exertion during high-level exercise using our techniques, but a heart rate of 120 BPM while maintaining a 6-minute-mile pace was hard to believe. I figured that perhaps Warren's monitoring equipment wasn't first-rate and invited him to our health center to verify his findings.
When he came, I put him on the treadmill. It wasn't long before he had the equipment "maxed out" at 10.5 miles per hours (a little better than a 6-minute mile), and, sure enough, his heart rate was stable at about 125 BPM and he was breathing easily at just the rate he had reported. The average runner would have to strain pretty hard to run a 6-minute mile, showing heart rates up to 180 BPM and breath rates up to 40 or 50 breaths per minute.
Warren's success came because he was determined not to incur stress but to let his body gracefully improve from the inside out. He never put pressure on himself to reach any specific time, either to meet an arbitrary deadline or to compete in a given race. He simply wanted to see how fast he could run and with how little effort.
Lowering heart and breath rates while running faster and faster is like driving a big old Cadillac and getting 50 miles per gallon. This possibility provides a new level of motivation: to see not only what one can do, but with how little effort and with how much efficiency it can be done. (I discuss how to do this in chapters 13 and 14, which describe the Three-Phase Workout.)
Not long after Warren's visit to me at the health center, he ran his first marathon. He cruised at a comfortable 61?2-minute-mile pace the whole way, finishing with ease and comfort at 2 hours 53 minutes. The next day he went out and ran 5 miles. Even more amazing, four days later he did a 10-mile run in a time that was his personal best.
Warren's strategy was to treat every race as a training race. He felt that if he could stay within himself, taking his cues from himself and not from any preconceived or outward standard, he would continue to rejuvenate himself with each run and steadily get better. More important, he would enjoy every race.
With this attitude, Warren fell in love with exercise. He was becoming fit, but this time it wasn't a case of his body being whipped into shape by his mind. He was feeling a deep sense of integrity and efficiency, as if he could run all day without strain. As he continued to improve, he would monitor his heart and breath rates and watch them remain low while he effortlessly attained competitive speeds and distances. To his amazement and delight, the harmony of his mind and body was reflected in his increasing ability to be in the Zone.
The principles described in this book are derived from ancient teachings that far predate the sports psychologists' discouraging pronouncements that the Zone is not reproducible. I believe--on the basis of my professional experience--that not only should the runner's high or Zone experience be expected with every workout, but that reaching this experience is the primary purpose of exercise. Only through this experience can we access our highest physical potential.
To prove this very bold point--that the elusive Zone is readily available within all of us and can be called up intentionally--we must look into the origins of exercise and sport.
Training Tip No. 1 The Acid Test
Try your normal workout while breathing through your nose. If you find it more difficult than usual and can't get enough oxygen, this indicates that you do not have maximum respiratory efficiency, and that you need this program! You can reach your full respiratory potential when you learn how to draw on it.
Back to the Future
If we went far enough back in time, we would see that the purpose of exercise was not to build muscles, lose weight, win races, or receive gold medals. To the ancient Greeks, for example, exercise was a vital part of daily life. The historian Xenophon said, "No citizen has any right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training; it is part of his profession as a citizen to keep himself in good condition." He added that it is "a disgrace for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and the strength of which his body is capable."
This attitude had a deeper, spiritual basis, explained by the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato, throughout his writings, emphasized the importance of exercise for developing the spiritual side of life. His ideal was harmonious perfection of both the body and the mind, or soul, and exercise was one of the methods he advocated. Aristotle also favored exercise and emphasized a theme that I will return to often in this book: that exercise should be moderate rather than excessive or insufficient, and that it should be undertaken in accordance with one's individual physical capacity.
Today, historians point out that the original martial arts did not consist solely of kicks, blocks, and punches. Their real purpose was to be found in the spiritual side, an aspect largely missing in modern American dojos. Even members of the U.S. karate team lament the absence of a spiritual base.
The history of the martial arts is sketchy in places, but most historians now agree that its roots in China were actually seeded from the even older Vedic culture of India. About fourteen hundred years ago an Indian monk named Bodhidharma journeyed from India over the Himalayas to bring the teachings of Buddha to China. He stopped to teach at the Shaolin Monastery in the Honan Province of central China. Tradition regards his teachings at Shaolin as the origin of the martial arts in China. This traditional lore gained credibility recently when two books attributed to Bodhidharma were discovered in the temple walls.